Officials: Oklahoma seniors, children to suffer as DHS announces cuts

OKLAHOMA CITY - The state Department of Human Services is warning the needy and vulnerable to prepare for service reductions as it tries to tackle a $30 million budget shortfall.

Among the expected reductions are community-based and nutrition programs for seniors, assistance payments for foster homes and adoptions and in-home support for people with developmental disabilities.

The state actually appropriated an additional $18 million for the upcoming fiscal year, but DHS officials said they're still suffering from years of cuts.

"We've taken quite a few hits over the last few years," said spokeswoman Sheree Powell, noting the agency has cut $80 million over the last two years. "We're now at the point where we're really jeopardizing our ability to implement our programs and serve Oklahomans."

Continued increases in costs have made it difficult for the agency to keep up, despite a recent increase in state funding.

DHS said it's already reduced its staff by 1,200 positions over the last two years. Now, the agency will likely have to slow down hiring and reduce administrative contracts.

Because the agency contracts with private agencies, private sector jobs may also be affected, Powell said. The state may also be forced to close about 15 percent of its county offices, particularly in the western part of the state.

"We serve and touch more than a million lives every year," she said.

For families that foster or adopt children, the cuts work out to a loss of approximately $1 per day per child.

Seniors that receive 20 hours a week of personal care services through the ADvantage program may lose up to five hours a week of assistance with bathing, medication assistance and food preparation.

Adults or children with developmental disabilities living at home may lose up to seven hours per week of services.

"It's shocking, because you just don't realize how many people DHS takes care of in our state," said Jennifer Abney, the founder and executive director of Angels Foster Family Network, which helps place foster kids with families. "These cuts, they're going to hurt a lot of people. But, I do feel like that is part of the resiliency of Oklahoma is that our people will step up and support families in need."

Abney doesn't think the cuts to foster care and adoption incentives will be enough to deter would-be parents.

"I don't think foster families foster for the money," she said. "They foster for the benefit of helping another person in need. And, our most vulnerable in our community are kids in foster care."

Instead, Abney is concerned about parents who may lose a subsidy to send their child to daycare.

"I'm worried that children may be left at home without anyone because, if it's between work and feeding your family and maybe leaving your kids for a few hours and checking on them at lunch, I think some people may choose the other route," she said. "And, that's when we're going to see them come into care for neglect."

While DHS struggles with its budget, Abney said her agency will have to step up, providing donations to families that may miss the stipend the state provides .